May 27, 2013

Cobbled together: How Indians solve problems with the technologies at hand

In India, jugaad is an electrical cord, split and stripped at the end, each wire pushed directly into one hole of an electrical outlet with half of a toothpick wedging it in place. It’s a short log used as a cutting board for the evening’s vegetables, the middle hollowed from chopping. It’s a professional tailor’s shears, each blade carefully hand-ground from what had previously been a metal file.

Jugaad is a Hindi word referring to workarounds. It’s a relatively new word but recalls a proud traditional attitude: “We make it work.” It can refer to a vehicle home-built around an agricultural pump motor, the person who built it, or the larger cultural pattern of finding solutions with available resources.

In the world’s most densely populated country, it would be easy to assume jugaad is simply a reactive byproduct of need—creativity born of desperation. But the rural office that sticks electrical cords directly into wall sockets has a box of plugs they could use instead, and the family with the cutting board log has a beautiful kitchen with a refrigerator and gas stove. Jugaad is deeply and positively ingrained in Indian life—a respect for solutions that work, regardless of whether they’re “right,” professionally designed, or store-bought.

The attitude is present even in socioeconomic circles where it’s not a necessity. But its embodied best by small manufacturers like Ramesh’s custom shoe shop in Maharashtra.

Rough around the Edges

Custom and hand-creation of shoes is almost extinct in America, though holdouts exist: Raul Ojeda, the owner of Willie’s, was recently profiled in Authentic Los Angeles. In India, however, many sandals and shoes are still produced by hand in street-side workshops.

Ramesh’s hand-production shop sits at the back end of M.G. Road, one of the main tourist spots in Pune. The front end of the street is packed with modern brand-name stores and sightseers. But even as the information technology and automotive industries expanded Pune to 5 million people over the last few decades, the back of the road has kept its quiet rows of wood-front apartments and stalls.

The shoemakers’ shop is a one-story blue wooden shed huddled between two-story buildings, and broad doors open the entire shop front to the sidewalk. Neat rows of shoes hang from nails in the low rafters. Every corner of the main room is full. Five or six shoemakers sit on the floor surrounded by cutting tools, bottles of adhesive and dye, scraps, and bags of shoe leather. Unlike Ojeda’s shop in Hollywood, there is no mechanized infrastructure: no mill for copying shoe lasts, no sewing machines. All the work is done by hand.

“Jugaad is deeply and positively ingrained in Indian life—a respect for solutions that work, regardless of whether they’re ‘right,’ professionally designed, or store-bought.”

The results are impressive. Many of their shoes are custom-designed, high-class business styles and feature the hand-stitched, stacked leather soles found on expensive Italian dress shoes. The prices are absurdly low compared to American retail but fairly expensive for Pune. These are shoes for the middle and upper class.

I sit with Ramesh’s assistant, one of the shoemakers. He’s young and comfortably hip, dressed in modern clothes with smart glasses and a stainless watch. He’d look right at home in a posh bar in any city. He sits on a mat, holding an urban cowboy boot that would fetch USD 300 in the US. He props the boot between his bare feet as he files and shapes the edge of the leather sole he’s just attached.

The tool he’s using is not a store-bought file but a piece of sandpaper glued to a flat block of wood. Another shaping tool sits nearby—a rasp made from a shoeshine tin lid with rows of holes poked upward through it. The rough edges and metal teeth poking up from the holes create a half-circle of vicious cheese-grater functionality. He roughs out the leather blanks with a cutter—a rectangle of steel with a simple handle, wrapped with two colorful lines of electrical tape. The working end has been sharpened like a chisel, and it rests near a block of wavy-grained stone upon which he whisks the blade lightly and absently. Each shoemaker repeats this every few minutes, and the whisper of razor-sharp blades permeates the shop.

As we talk, he finishes shaping the stacked leather; the edge of the sole is rough like suede. He picks up something small lying at his side—a tool I can’t quite see—and starts drawing it carefully along the outer edge of the sole. The mystery tool is so sharp that where his fingers have passed, the leather is magically transformed—smooth and shiny as if it had been varnished, showing the grain and stacked layers of the leather. He notices me leaning closer, pauses, and holds out his hand. On his palm is a small piece of broken window glass.

Making It Work

Ramesh’s workers will make shoes in any style; they have binders crammed with hundreds of choices and offer to re-create any pair, just as one selects a haircut from photos at a barber shop. They also take part in India’s vast shoe repair industry. Shoes and sandals that would be tossed in America are re-stitched, re-soled, and re-shined again and again. They make it work.

More automated shoemakers have taken to knockoffs. The range and fidelity of copied shoes are impressive, and it’s not uncommon to see look-alikes sold alongside originals. Some small manufacturers enthusiastically combine features and even logos from multiple brands.

If jugaad were just the daughter of necessity, or if it were frowned upon by the middle and upper class people who buy these shoes, a maker of relatively expensive custom shoes might try to project a more modern, less cobbled-together image. But jugaad is clearly the norm in this shop, and it enables Ramesh to do things a more “modernized” shop couldn’t. Without the footprint of machinery, his work can be done in a single open storefront. No cabinets are required either; shoes dangle, neatly organized, from the rafters. Finer touches would be difficult to automate: the shoemakers add durability by hand-stitching the layers from inside a diagonal cut in the bottom of the sole, so the leather lies down over the stitches and protects them from the ground.

Glancing into the shop from M.G. Road, one might assume these cobblers are starving craftsmen, unable to afford better equipment or compete in today’s mass-produced, globalized markets. But as we talk, Ramesh explains that he and a colleague have been setting up a deal to sell their shoes—in low volume but with high markup—through a couple of high-end boutiques in London. As with their handmade tools, they’re doing more with less. They’ll make it work.

Jed Farlow is a fellow at Design Impact, a non-profit organization that partners professional designers with community organizations.

This article was first published by Makeshift Magazine.

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